It may be that the police resented the intrusion of an amateur, or that they imagined themselves to be upon some hopeful line of investigation; but it is certain that we heard nothing from them for the next two days. During this time Holmes spent some of his time smoking and dreaming in the cottage; but a greater portion in country walks which he undertook alone, returning after many hours without remark as to where he had been. One experiment served to show me the line of his investigation. He had bought a lamp which was the duplicate of the one which had burned in the room of Mortimer Tregennis on the morning of the tragedy. This he filled with the same oil as that used at the vicarage, and he carefully timed the period which it would take to be exhausted. Another experiment which he made was of a more unpleasant nature, and one which I am not likely ever to forget.
"You will remember, Watson," he remarked one afternoon, "that there is
a single common point of resemblance in the varying reports which have
reached us. This concerns the effect of the atmosphere of the room in
each case upon those who had first entered it. You will recollect that
Mortimer Tregennis, in describing the episode of his last visit to his
brother's house, remarked that the doctor on entering the room fell
into a chair? You had forgotten? Well I can answer for it that it was
so. Now, you will remember also that Mrs. Porter, the housekeeper, told
us that she herself fainted upon entering the room and had afterwards
opened the window. In the second case--that of Mortimer Tregennis
himself--you cannot have forgotten the horrible stuffiness of the room
when we arrived, though the servant had thrown open the window. That
servant, I found upon inquiry, was so ill that she had gone to her bed.
You will admit, Watson, that these facts are very suggestive. In each
case there is evidence of a poisonous atmosphere. In each case, also,
there is combustion going on in the room--in the one case a fire, in
the other a lamp. The fire was needed, but the lamp was lit--as a
comparison of the oil consumed will show--long after it was broad
daylight. Why? Surely because there is some connection between three
things--the burning, the stuffy atmosphere, and, finally, the madness
or death of those unfortunate people. That is clear, is it not?"
"It would appear so."
"At least we may accept it as a working hypothesis. We will suppose,
then, that something was burned in each case which produced an
atmosphere causing strange toxic effects. Very good. In the first
instance--that of the Tregennis family--this substance was placed in
the fire. Now the window was shut, but the fire would naturally carry
fumes to some extent up the chimney. Hence one would expect the
effects of the poison to be less than in the second case, where there
was less escape for the vapour. The result seems to indicate that it
was so, since in the first case only the woman, who had presumably the
more sensitive organism, was killed, the others exhibiting that
temporary or permanent lunacy which is evidently the first effect of
the drug. In the second case the result was complete. The facts,
therefore, seem to bear out the theory of a poison which worked by
"With this train of reasoning in my head I naturally looked about in
Mortimer Tregennis's room to find some remains of this substance. The
obvious place to look was the talc shelf or smoke-guard of the lamp.
There, sure enough, I perceived a number of flaky ashes, and round the
edges a fringe of brownish powder, which had not yet been consumed.
Half of this I took, as you saw, and I placed it in an envelope."
"Why half, Holmes?"
"It is not for me, my dear Watson, to stand in the way of the official
police force. I leave them all the evidence which I found. The poison
still remained upon the talc had they the wit to find it. Now, Watson,
we will light our lamp; we will, however, take the precaution to open
our window to avoid the premature decease of two deserving members of
society, and you will seat yourself near that open window in an
armchair unless, like a sensible man, you determine to have nothing to
do with the affair. Oh, you will see it out, will you? I thought I
knew my Watson. This chair I will place opposite yours, so that we may
be the same distance from the poison and face to face. The door we
will leave ajar. Each is now in a position to watch the other and to
bring the experiment to an end should the symptoms seem alarming. Is
that all clear? Well, then, I take our powder--or what remains of
it--from the envelope, and I lay it above the burning lamp. So! Now,
Watson, let us sit down and await developments."
They were not long in coming. I had hardly settled in my chair before
I was conscious of a thick, musky odour, subtle and nauseous. At the
very first whiff of it my brain and my imagination were beyond all
control. A thick, black cloud swirled before my eyes, and my mind told
me that in this cloud, unseen as yet, but about to spring out upon my
appalled senses, lurked all that was vaguely horrible, all that was
monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe. Vague shapes
swirled and swam amid the dark cloud-bank, each a menace and a warning
of something coming, the advent of some unspeakable dweller upon the
threshold, whose very shadow would blast my soul. A freezing horror
took possession of me. I felt that my hair was rising, that my eyes
were protruding, that my mouth was opened, and my tongue like leather.
The turmoil within my brain was such that something must surely snap.
I tried to scream and was vaguely aware of some hoarse croak which was
my own voice, but distant and detached from myself. At the same moment,
in some effort of escape, I broke through that cloud of despair and had
a glimpse of Holmes's face, white, rigid, and drawn with horror--the
very look which I had seen upon the features of the dead. It was that
vision which gave me an instant of sanity and of strength. I dashed
from my chair, threw my arms round Holmes, and together we lurched
through the door, and an instant afterwards had thrown ourselves down
upon the grass plot and were lying side by side, conscious only of the
glorious sunshine which was bursting its way through the hellish cloud
of terror which had girt us in. Slowly it rose from our souls like the
mists from a landscape until peace and reason had returned, and we were
sitting upon the grass, wiping our clammy foreheads, and looking with
apprehension at each other to mark the last traces of that terrific
experience which we had undergone.
"Upon my word, Watson!" said Holmes at last with an unsteady voice, "I
owe you both my thanks and an apology. It was an unjustifiable
experiment even for one's self, and doubly so for a friend. I am
really very sorry."
"You know," I answered with some emotion, for I have never seen so much
of Holmes's heart before, "that it is my greatest joy and privilege to
He relapsed at once into the half-humorous, half-cynical vein which was
his habitual attitude to those about him. "It would be superfluous to
drive us mad, my dear Watson," said he. "A candid observer would
certainly declare that we were so already before we embarked upon so
wild an experiment. I confess that I never imagined that the effect
could be so sudden and so severe." He dashed into the cottage, and,
reappearing with the burning lamp held at full arm's length, he threw
it among a bank of brambles. "We must give the room a little time to
clear. I take it, Watson, that you have no longer a shadow of a doubt
as to how these tragedies were produced?"
"But the cause remains as obscure as before. Come into the arbour here
and let us discuss it together. That villainous stuff seems still to
linger round my throat. I think we must admit that all the evidence
points to this man, Mortimer Tregennis, having been the criminal in the
first tragedy, though he was the victim in the second one. We must
remember, in the first place, that there is some story of a family
quarrel, followed by a reconciliation. How bitter that quarrel may
have been, or how hollow the reconciliation we cannot tell. When I
think of Mortimer Tregennis, with the foxy face and the small shrewd,
beady eyes behind the spectacles, he is not a man whom I should judge
to be of a particularly forgiving disposition. Well, in the next place,
you will remember that this idea of someone moving in the garden, which
took our attention for a moment from the real cause of the tragedy,
emanated from him. He had a motive in misleading us. Finally, if he
did not throw the substance into the fire at the moment of leaving the
room, who did do so? The affair happened immediately after his
departure. Had anyone else come in, the family would certainly have
risen from the table. Besides, in peaceful Cornwall, visitors did not
arrive after ten o'clock at night. We may take it, then, that all the
evidence points to Mortimer Tregennis as the culprit."
"Then his own death was suicide!"
"Well, Watson, it is on the face of it a not impossible supposition.
The man who had the guilt upon his soul of having brought such a fate
upon his own family might well be driven by remorse to inflict it upon
himself. There are, however, some cogent reasons against it.
Fortunately, there is one man in England who knows all about it, and I
have made arrangements by which we shall hear the facts this afternoon
from his own lips. Ah! he is a little before his time. Perhaps you
would kindly step this way, Dr. Leon Sterndale. We have been conducing
a chemical experiment indoors which has left our little room hardly fit
for the reception of so distinguished a visitor."
I had heard the click of the garden gate, and now the majestic figure
of the great African explorer appeared upon the path. He turned in
some surprise towards the rustic arbour in which we sat.
"You sent for me, Mr. Holmes. I had your note about an hour ago, and I
have come, though I really do not know why I should obey your summons."
"Perhaps we can clear the point up before we separate," said Holmes.
"Meanwhile, I am much obliged to you for your courteous acquiescence.
You will excuse this informal reception in the open air, but my friend
Watson and I have nearly furnished an additional chapter to what the
papers call the Cornish Horror, and we prefer a clear atmosphere for
the present. Perhaps, since the matters which we have to discuss will
affect you personally in a very intimate fashion, it is as well that we
should talk where there can be no eavesdropping."
The explorer took his cigar from his lips and gazed sternly at my
"I am at a loss to know, sir," he said, "what you can have to speak
about which affects me personally in a very intimate fashion."
"The killing of Mortimer Tregennis," said Holmes.
For a moment I wished that I were armed. Sterndale's fierce face
turned to a dusky red, his eyes glared, and the knotted, passionate
veins started out in his forehead, while he sprang forward with
clenched hands towards my companion. Then he stopped, and with a
violent effort he resumed a cold, rigid calmness, which was, perhaps,
more suggestive of danger than his hot-headed outburst.
"I have lived so long among savages and beyond the law," said he, "that
I have got into the way of being a law to myself. You would do well,
Mr. Holmes, not to forget it, for I have no desire to do you an injury."
"Nor have I any desire to do you an injury, Dr. Sterndale. Surely the
clearest proof of it is that, knowing what I know, I have sent for you
and not for the police."
Sterndale sat down with a gasp, overawed for, perhaps, the first time
in his adventurous life. There was a calm assurance of power in
Holmes's manner which could not be withstood. Our visitor stammered
for a moment, his great hands opening and shutting in his agitation.
"What do you mean?" he asked at last. "If this is bluff upon your
part, Mr. Holmes, you have chosen a bad man for your experiment. Let us
have no more beating about the bush. What DO you mean?"
"I will tell you," said Holmes, "and the reason why I tell you is that
I hope frankness may beget frankness. What my next step may be will
depend entirely upon the nature of your own defence."
"My defence against what?"
"Against the charge of killing Mortimer Tregennis."
Sterndale mopped his forehead with his handkerchief. "Upon my word,
you are getting on," said he. "Do all your successes depend upon this
prodigious power of bluff?"
"The bluff," said Holmes sternly, "is upon your side, Dr. Leon
Sterndale, and not upon mine. As a proof I will tell you some of the
facts upon which my conclusions are based. Of your return from
Plymouth, allowing much of your property to go on to Africa, I will say
nothing save that it first informed me that you were one of the factors
which had to be taken into account in reconstructing this drama--"
"I came back--"
"I have heard your reasons and regard them as unconvincing and
inadequate. We will pass that. You came down here to ask me whom I
suspected. I refused to answer you. You then went to the vicarage,
waited outside it for some time, and finally returned to your cottage."
"How do you know that?"
"I followed you."
"I saw no one."
"That is what you may expect to see when I follow you. You spent a
restless night at your cottage, and you formed certain plans, which in
the early morning you proceeded to put into execution. Leaving your
door just as day was breaking, you filled your pocket with some reddish
gravel that was lying heaped beside your gate."
Sterndale gave a violent start and looked at Holmes in amazement.
"You then walked swiftly for the mile which separated you from the
vicarage. You were wearing, I may remark, the same pair of ribbed
tennis shoes which are at the present moment upon your feet. At the
vicarage you passed through the orchard and the side hedge, coming out
under the window of the lodger Tregennis. It was now daylight, but the
household was not yet stirring. You drew some of the gravel from your
pocket, and you threw it up at the window above you."
Sterndale sprang to his feet.
"I believe that you are the devil himself!" he cried.
Holmes smiled at the compliment. "It took two, or possibly three,
handfuls before the lodger came to the window. You beckoned him to
come down. He dressed hurriedly and descended to his sitting-room.
You entered by the window. There was an interview--a short one--during
which you walked up and down the room. Then you passed out and closed
the window, standing on the lawn outside smoking a cigar and watching
what occurred. Finally, after the death of Tregennis, you withdrew as
you had come. Now, Dr. Sterndale, how do you justify such conduct, and
what were the motives for your actions? If you prevaricate or trifle
with me, I give you my assurance that the matter will pass out of my
Our visitor's face had turned ashen gray as he listened to the words of
his accuser. Now he sat for some time in thought with his face sunk in
his hands. Then with a sudden impulsive gesture he plucked a
photograph from his breast-pocket and threw it on the rustic table
"That is why I have done it," said he.
It showed the bust and face of a very beautiful woman. Holmes stooped
"Brenda Tregennis," said he.
"Yes, Brenda Tregennis," repeated our visitor. "For years I have loved
her. For years she has loved me. There is the secret of that Cornish
seclusion which people have marvelled at. It has brought me close to
the one thing on earth that was dear to me. I could not marry her, for
I have a wife who has left me for years and yet whom, by the deplorable
laws of England, I could not divorce. For years Brenda waited. For
years I waited. And this is what we have waited for." A terrible sob
shook his great frame, and he clutched his throat under his brindled
beard. Then with an effort he mastered himself and spoke on:
"The vicar knew. He was in our confidence. He would tell you that she
was an angel upon earth. That was why he telegraphed to me and I
returned. What was my baggage or Africa to me when I learned that such
a fate had come upon my darling? There you have the missing clue to my
action, Mr. Holmes."
"Proceed," said my friend.
Dr. Sterndale drew from his pocket a paper packet and laid it upon the
table. On the outside was written "Radix pedis diaboli" with a red
poison label beneath it. He pushed it towards me. "I understand that
you are a doctor, sir. Have you ever heard of this preparation?"
"Devil's-foot root! No, I have never heard of it."
"It is no reflection upon your professional knowledge," said he, "for I
believe that, save for one sample in a laboratory at Buda, there is no
other specimen in Europe. It has not yet found its way either into the
pharmacopoeia or into the literature of toxicology. The root is shaped
like a foot, half human, half goatlike; hence the fanciful name given
by a botanical missionary. It is used as an ordeal poison by the
medicine-men in certain districts of West Africa and is kept as a
secret among them. This particular specimen I obtained under very
extraordinary circumstances in the Ubangi country." He opened the
paper as he spoke and disclosed a heap of reddish-brown, snuff-like
"Well, sir?" asked Holmes sternly.
"I am about to tell you, Mr. Holmes, all that actually occurred, for
you already know so much that it is clearly to my interest that you
should know all. I have already explained the relationship in which I
stood to the Tregennis family. For the sake of the sister I was
friendly with the brothers. There was a family quarrel about money
which estranged this man Mortimer, but it was supposed to be made up,
and I afterwards met him as I did the others. He was a sly, subtle,
scheming man, and several things arose which gave me a suspicion of
him, but I had no cause for any positive quarrel.
"One day, only a couple of weeks ago, he came down to my cottage and I
showed him some of my African curiosities. Among other things I
exhibited this powder, and I told him of its strange properties, how it
stimulates those brain centres which control the emotion of fear, and
how either madness or death is the fate of the unhappy native who is
subjected to the ordeal by the priest of his tribe. I told him also
how powerless European science would be to detect it. How he took it I
cannot say, for I never left the room, but there is no doubt that it
was then, while I was opening cabinets and stooping to boxes, that he
managed to abstract some of the devil's-foot root. I well remember how
he plied me with questions as to the amount and the time that was
needed for its effect, but I little dreamed that he could have a
personal reason for asking.
"I thought no more of the matter until the vicar's telegram reached me
at Plymouth. This villain had thought that I would be at sea before
the news could reach me, and that I should be lost for years in Africa.
But I returned at once. Of course, I could not listen to the details
without feeling assured that my poison had been used. I came round to
see you on the chance that some other explanation had suggested itself
to you. But there could be none. I was convinced that Mortimer
Tregennis was the murderer; that for the sake of money, and with the
idea, perhaps, that if the other members of his family were all insane
he would be the sole guardian of their joint property, he had used the
devil's-foot powder upon them, driven two of them out of their senses,
and killed his sister Brenda, the one human being whom I have ever
loved or who has ever loved me. There was his crime; what was to be
"Should I appeal to the law? Where were my proofs? I knew that the
facts were true, but could I help to make a jury of countrymen believe
so fantastic a story? I might or I might not. But I could not afford
to fail. My soul cried out for revenge. I have said to you once
before, Mr. Holmes, that I have spent much of my life outside the law,
and that I have come at last to be a law to myself. So it was even
now. I determined that the fate which he had given to others should be
shared by himself. Either that or I would do justice upon him with my
own hand. In all England there can be no man who sets less value upon
his own life than I do at the present moment.
"Now I have told you all. You have yourself supplied the rest. I did,
as you say, after a restless night, set off early from my cottage. I
foresaw the difficulty of arousing him, so I gathered some gravel from
the pile which you have mentioned, and I used it to throw up to his
window. He came down and admitted me through the window of the
sitting-room. I laid his offence before him. I told him that I had
come both as judge and executioner. The wretch sank into a chair,
paralyzed at the sight of my revolver. I lit the lamp, put the powder
above it, and stood outside the window, ready to carry out my threat to
shoot him should he try to leave the room. In five minutes he died.
My God! how he died! But my heart was flint, for he endured nothing
which my innocent darling had not felt before him. There is my story,
Mr. Holmes. Perhaps, if you loved a woman, you would have done as much
yourself. At any rate, I am in your hands. You can take what steps
you like. As I have already said, there is no man living who can fear
death less than I do."
Holmes sat for some little time in silence.
"What were your plans?" he asked at last.
"I had intended to bury myself in central Africa. My work there is but
"Go and do the other half," said Holmes. "I, at least, am not prepared
to prevent you."
Dr. Sterndale raised his giant figure, bowed gravely, and walked from
the arbour. Holmes lit his pipe and handed me his pouch.
"Some fumes which are not poisonous would be a welcome change," said
he. "I think you must agree, Watson, that it is not a case in which we
are called upon to interfere. Our investigation has been independent,
and our action shall be so also. You would not denounce the man?"
"Certainly not," I answered.
"I have never loved, Watson, but if I did and if the woman I loved had
met such an end, I might act even as our lawless lion-hunter has done.
Who knows? Well, Watson, I will not offend your intelligence by
explaining what is obvious. The gravel upon the window-sill was, of
course, the starting-point of my research. It was unlike anything in
the vicarage garden. Only when my attention had been drawn to Dr.
Sterndale and his cottage did I find its counterpart. The lamp shining
in broad daylight and the remains of powder upon the shield were
successive links in a fairly obvious chain. And now, my dear Watson...